Democrats are lashing out at Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt for hiring top-dollar private lawyers, including Wichita-based Foulston Siefkin, to defend the state against lawsuits related to abortion. But their anger is misplaced.
There’s nothing unusual or improper about a Kansas attorney general hiring outside counsel. The budget stress felt by all state agencies can only have made the office’s regular workload of more than 600 cases harder to manage for its 10 staff attorneys.
And these abortion cases are time-sensitive and anything but routine, making them ill-suited to a deliberative bidding process.
They stem from the pent-up demand for anti-abortion measures exhibited by the GOP-led Legislature, after being thwarted for eight years by the veto pens of two Democratic governors.
Invited by new Gov. Sam Brownback to send bills to his desk “establishing a culture of life in Kansas,” the lawmakers delivered big time.
In the process, they recklessly invited costly legal challenges.
Two Kansas City-area abortion providers filed federal lawsuits, which Schmidt assigned to former University of Kansas Law School dean Stephen McAllister. They concern the state’s rush to impose strict regulations that seemingly were designed to shut down the remaining abortion clinics.
The lawsuit filed by Planned Parenthood that prompted Schmidt to involve Foulston Siefkin challenges the state’s move to divert $334,000 in federal family planning dollars to other agencies.
The Kansas Department of Health and Environment’s overzealous implementation didn’t help matters; it gave clinics just two weeks to comply with the new regulations (compared with the two years that South Carolina clinics had under a similar law).
It’s wise to watch every attorney general’s use of outside counsel for signs of abuse.
But with Schmidt only having been on the job for six months, it’s too soon to say he’s overdoing the outsourcing.
As for Democrats’ charges that Schmidt shouldn’t have hired Foulston Siefkin because its partners include Harvey Sorensen, who co-chaired Schmidt’s 2010 campaign, and because its clients include GOP donors Charles and David Koch: Foulston Siefkin is the state’s largest law firm, with dozens of lawyers. And given the breadth of the Republican Party throughout the state and its legal community, the surprise would have been if Schmidt had hired firms free of GOP ties.
At least his choices show a desire to give the state high-quality representation against what Schmidt calls the plaintiffs’ “big guns” from outside the state, including at least 16 attorneys with nine legal organizations.
Would it be better if the state didn’t have to rack up outside legal bills over abortion or anything else, especially during a budget crisis?
But the offense here is not that Schmidt decided he needed help defending the state against these lawsuits, but that the Legislature and governor passed such bills with so little regard for the certainty that they would be sued over them.